Today (April 17) is Prisoners’ Day in Palestine – a day that seeks to raise awareness of the thousands of Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli detention. To mark the day, we are publishing this special report from EA Elspeth on the recent illegal arrest and three-month detention of a child called Hamzeh in Bethlehem.
Hamzeh Abu Hashem of Beit Ummar had already been in the national news when our Bethlehem team was asked to visit him. Aged 15, he was arrested on December 23 last year, ostensibly for throwing stones, and on March 29, just after we arrived in our placement, he was released, having spent three months in prison.Why would this reach the national press in occupied Palestine, Israel and abroad? Sadly it is commonplace for Palestinian children to be detained and imprisoned in Israel. “From 1967 until April 2015,” writes Solomon Ranjan of the Palestine Israel Ecumenical Forum, “Israel has detained some 850,000 citizens, including nearly 15,000 females and tens of thousands of children for various periods of time. Over the past four years alone, 3,755 children were detained of which 1,266 were held in 2014.” Hamzeh is part of these statistics.
So why was he in the news? He did not know why he had been arrested – his parents were not there when it happened and they only heard about it from neighbours. His family is always in trouble with the military (his older brother, Mohammed, is already in prison) and both his parents are blacklisted. This means they could not get permission to visit him, nor indeed to do anything that requires Israeli permission, such as getting a work permit or going to Jerusalem for worship. There are two kinds of blacklist: one is the Shabak blacklist, Israel’s internal security service, which can be contested. The other is the police blacklist which is permanent. It is not clear which blacklist Hamzeh’s parents are on, but this is still not the reason for the press interest, for that too is commonplace. Many families find themselves and their children blacklisted with no explanation, although Hamzeh’s father suspects he knows why his family is: “My family are peace activists for the liberation of Palestine,” he says proudly and speaks of night raids by the Israeli military, tear gas thrown into the house and, bizarrely, soldiers mixing flour and sugar in his kitchen to create havoc and unsettle his family.
The press interest came about because as Hamzeh was working a few metres away from his home, he was subject to a vicious attack by two Israeli military dogs – and one of the soldiers videoed the attack. Hamzeh had been accused of earlier throwing stones at soldiers, an accusation which he denied, and in response the soldiers set their dogs on him. According to his father it may have been a form of dog training, something which his father said often happened in his neighbourhood. But whether or not it was training, the dogs were deliberately set upon a terrified teenager – his son – with exclamations of “Great!” from the soldiers.
Even this kind of thing is, in itself, not uncommon. As one soldier from Breaking the Silence, the Israeli charity that helps Israeli soldiers to speak out about their time serving in occupied Palestine, recounted last month: “I can tell you from my army service, when I did my first operation, I was trained that I’m going to be dealing with terrorists in my service. And I remember my first operation when I got into the house I realised: this is a family, what we are doing here is like most of the time dealing with families. And the only way I know how to talk to them was with the weapon. This is how you are used to talk to them. You point with your gun to the left, you point with a gun to the right. The same with the dog – [it] is being used as a weapon.”Setting dogs on Palestinians has been done before in Israel, but this story hit the press and went viral because the soldier’s video of the attack was found, uploaded and commented on favourably by Michael Ben Ari, a former member of the Israeli parliament. Ben Ari tweeted: “The soldiers taught the little terrorist a lesson” . The video is graphic and upsetting – Hamzeh’s mother said she wept when she saw it – and there was international outrage. Apologies were made and the Israeli army temporarily halted using dogs in the West Bank. This made no difference to Hamzeh however. After the savage attack which wounded his arm, his leg and his neck, he was bleeding and terrified and so was taken to Hadassah hospital in Jerusalem for three days. He was then sent to an Israeli military prison in Ramallah and detained there for three months. Despite his injuries he said it was very cold, he could not sleep, he ate very basic food and was in an overcrowded cell with 10 others. The prisoners were counted three times a day and the soldiers only spoke Hebrew, not Arabic, even when they asked him to sign a confession. “If you do not sign to confess you threw stones, we will kill you,” they apparently said. He says he did not understand the Hebrew in the confession and did not sign.
When our group visited Hamzeh, he seemed resigned to answering questions and showing his wounds, but he was not happy. As his mother kindly served tea and coffee, she said that she had felt completely helpless when he was in prison:“You can’t do anything…you can’t even visit. It is heartbreaking. I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t eat.” It will take some time for Hamzeh to recover from the ordeal of the dogs and of the prison, if he ever does. Many children are left traumatised by such experiences.
In 2011 a delegation of lawyers from the UK, funded by the Foreign Office, visited occupied Palestine to assess the treatment of Palestinian children detained under Israeli military law. Their 2012 report, Children in Military Custody, details the different violations of international humanitarian law that are committed by the Israeli military in cases like Hamzeh’s.
The Abu Hashem family have been supported and helped through their ordeal by the Palestinian Prisoners’ Society in Nablus and there are many organisations like this to help children in prison. As we mark Prisoners’ Day in Palestine today, please consider contacting your own local elected representative or General Election candidate to raise his or her awareness of the injustices perpetrated by the illegal occupation of Palestine, especially towards children. A good place to begin could be the story of Hamzeh Abu Hashem.